Red is the New Black


Every woman needs a little black dress. It is a fashion “rule”- that every woman has an LBD in her closet. But if women really want to be seen as attractive, that LBD may not be working for them – they may be wearing the wrong color dress. The rule should really be that every woman needs a little RED dress. This LRD may increase your attractiveness and your chances of finding a significant other.

In Social Psychology we look at interpersonal relationships and why people are attracted to others. But this is not something people typically think about as they go about their everyday lives. We don’t look at people and analyze why we are attracted to them; we don’t say “I like this person because I see them all the time and I am attracted to them because they have a very symmetrical and average face”. Physical attraction occurs on a much more subconscious level and many researchers believe it is due to evolutionary psychology. Factors such as proximity, symmetry, and averageness, increase our levels of attraction. These factors are associated with ‘good genes’ that we recognize and quickly assimilate into our thinking – which we can pass down these genes to our offspring. And there are even more hidden factors and stimuli that can also increase someone’s attractiveness.

One such powerful, yet subtle, environmental stimulus that affects attractiveness is color, specifically the color red (hence the switch to a little red dress). Recent work has shown that men perceive the color red as more sexually appealing, which in turn lead them to ‘see’ and rate females as more attractive if they are wearing this color. People are more attracted to the color red because it is connected to lust, romantic love, and female fertility. This is directly connected to the idea of evolutionary psychology; men are attracted to fertility and it is linked to reproductive success.

One social psychologist, Steven Young, wanted to further explore the effect of the color red on male perceptions of attractiveness. In a recent study he looked at how attractiveness is moderated by the influence of red on men’s perception. He also looked at exposure time to see if it effected perception.

In the experiment, heterosexual male participants viewed pictures of 40 female faces, all varying in attractiveness, but presented on both red and gray backgrounds. Each of the a faces – from what was considered as attractive to unattractive – were then viewed for two exposure periods: a short exposure time and a prolonged exposure time. Immediately after each face was shown the men were asked to rate how attractive the face was on a scale ranging from extremely unattractive to extremely attractive. Therefore, participants saw each face four times, once on each colored background and with two different time exposures. This allowed for the researcher to see if color and time exposure had an affect on men’s perceptions of attractiveness.

The results of this study showed conclusively that showing faces on a red background automatically enhanced men’s perceptions only for faces that were already seen as attractive. The color red significantly enhanced men’s perceptions of females’ attractiveness vs those same females when pictured with the gray background. Those less attractive females were not seen as more attractive regardless of the red vs grey background. Their results also found that we process the integration of faces and color early on. This implies that there is some importance to being able to recognize interactions of color and faces for quick processing.

However, there were limitations to this study due to sample size and variables. It only used a relatively small sample, so this study did not necessarily have high reliability. Another issue with it was that it only compared faces on two colors, red and gray. Lastly, the exposure time was an exploratory variable. A second experiment addressed these methodological limitations, and they increased the sample size , held the exposure time constant and added an additional control color (blue – a color that is well liked by men). The results obtained from the second experiment only reinforced the results from the first experiment. Red, when compared to blue and gray, increased attraction only toward attractive women. But when participants looked at an unattractive face, neither red nor blue, altered men’s ratings of attractiveness.

If we look at this learning from an evolutionary perspective, the studies imply that the color red is important in human mating. However it is only a signal for sexual receptivity when men are looking for a desirable mate. So if the objective of the night is about finding a mate, then maybe a red dress should be worn. However, don’t go throwing out your little black dress anytime soon.

Young, S. G. (2015). The effect of red on male perceptions of female attractiveness:              Moderation by baseline attractiveness of female faces. European Journal of Social Psychology, doi:10.1002/ejsp.2098

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